“The fact that he was able to say it meant he could breathe."
-- Rep. Peter King (R-NY), on the now-dead Eric Garner calling out, "I can't breathe."
It’s been near-impossible not to be overwhelmed by news coverage of the recent spate of Grand Jury non-indictments of police officers in the deaths of black men. It's among the most significant news in years for this country, not for the news itself but the groundwork it lays for the future.
But what’s stood out most to me is almost less than the story, but more the forced attempts to whitewash (no pun intended) the situation. This isn’t to say that the police officers should or shouldn’t have been indicted -- that's a separate matter -- but rather to say that the efforts to defend both the actions and Grand Jury decisions have been so contorted that they speak volumes about the speakers themselves and their refusal to recognize the schism that has been caused in society.
It’s like if the people who live in a town below a mighty dam that’s suddenly cracked and begun to crumble start to raise horrified hell about it, and others halfway across the country living in safe comfort get on TV to explain why brick is such good building material and if you can scream for help that means you’re not under water yet. And all the while you want to yell back, look, for God's sake, water is pouring through the cracks!
Peter King has never been one not to jump on the pain and suffering of others, but he may have outdone himself here with his Salem Witch Trial Defense. That’s, of course, the one based on the concept that when you’re dunked in water, if you have the good fortune to drown that means you’re not a witch and therefore acquitted. Only if you live are you found guilty.
Reading the nurturing words of Rep. King, the conclusion one can draw is that the only situation he’d have approved of is if Eric Garner had said nothing and died, happily proving his “I can’t breathe” point in gentlemanly silence. It’s also heartening to know that at least we have one Representative in Congress who believes in the importance not only in the police, but also the Grammar Police, since after all what the late Mr. Garner should have said, of course, to meet Peter King's standards as he was being choked to death is more accurately, “I am having great difficulty breathing.”
It’s also endearing to know that Peter King is a believer in that proud tradition of blaming the victim, which is why it must have thrilled him when the medical examiner stated that while the chokehold was, in fact, the cause of Eric Garner’s death, his asthma, obesity and cardiovascular disease contributed.
"If he had not had asthma, and a heart condition and was so obese,” the Congressman eagerly told Wolf Blitzer on CNN, “almost definitely he would not have died from this." And Mr. King is perhaps right – maybe. What he left out, after all, was that if Eric Garner had not been choked, almost definitely he would not have died from this, either.
If a person has a weak heart, and you shoot him, he might not be able to recover, and that very heart disease will be a contributing cause of his death. But not as much as being shot.
Rep. King went on to explain that the "police had no reason to know that he was in serious condition." No they didn't, other than he was saying he couldn’t breathe. And was clearly obese.
But no, that wasn't enough, Peter King was on a roll and just kept grasping at straws, anything to try and find excuses and say All is Actually Well, rather than making a valid case for police procedure while showing not just compassion but also an awareness of the volatile situation.
“If you've ever seen anyone resisting arrest," he added, "I've seen it, and it's been white guys, and they're always saying, 'You're breaking my arm, you're choking me, you're doing this,' police hear this all the time.”
First of all, my favorite part of this quote is the tangential, “…and it’s been white guys.” As if that has substantive meaning here for some apparent reason, even if true. But beyond that, while I’m sure he's right that police do hear this all the time…I would wager that some of the time they hear this is when the person being detained is having their arm broken and being choked.
To be clear, it’s a very difficult situation for the police. And difficult during incredibly stressful, violent encounters, when split-second decisions often have to be made. That’s why police get training, to gauge when a situation requires pressing forward or perhaps stepping back. And that’s why the police tend to be given some understanding in their actions, and should be given it. But that doesn’t mean those decisions are always the right one. It’s one thing to say, “This is a horribly difficult job, but they may have not handled it properly this time,” and another to say, “This is a horribly difficult job, therefore they’re always right.”
But it’s not just Peter King who is on the podium, howling at the moon. Patrick Lynch, president of the police union, is up there, as well. Mind you, I expect the president of the police union to defend his men. And so he should. It's his job to defend the police. What I don’t expect him to do is make himself the victim.
"Police officers feel like they are being thrown under the bus," he said. And one marvels as his thoughtlessness. After all, Eric Garner was almost literally thrown under the bus. And died.
And then there was Maki Haberfeld, a professor of police studies at John Jay College of criminal justice. ""Everyone is just demonizing the police,” he said. “But police follow orders and laws."
Yes, he's right, they do follow orders and law. And so does the public. But sometimes occasional members of the public break those laws. I certainly hope that Professor Haberfield isn’t suggesting that unlike the public, all police follow those orders and laws all the time. I suspect he’d say, no, but almost all do almost all the time. And I’m sure he’s right. But that’s the point – what’s in question here are those times when the police don’t follow the orders and laws. What do you do then?
By the way, I completely understand why all these people and the police themselves protectively close ranks and are defending the officers in question. It's critical to have everyone's backs. I don't say that pejoratively -- it is critical to know you are being protected all around in a dangerous job. They may well-believe that nothing wrong was done -- and perhaps nothing was, or not -- but also it always makes an intensely difficult job far easier to do when you and your fellow members are perceived as impeccable at it. Yet one would think that it also would make the job far easier if the public had full, unquestioning confidence in you, which would be helped by addressing those who act in ways that breed mistrust. When those on one's team (whatever the team) do anything that makes the job more difficult, who erode that confidence, you'd think you'd want that corrected. Again, this isn't to make a case that anything was done wrong here or not, but rather to say that the sense of circling the wagons by default at first wind of a problem might not always be the best solution if the issue might possibly be inside.
Of course, all this is mere prelude, because at this point it’s pretty clear that the winner of the most twisted dismissal of what’s at stake and going on in the rift between the black community and police comes from Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), the aspiring presidential candidate. While to his credit, he did say on MSNBC's "Hardball" that it was hard not to be “horrified” by video of Eric Garner being choked (though not explaining what he was "horrified" about…), he felt compelled to expand his views and explain what we all should really be concerned with. And no, it wasn’t the man being choked to death.
"But I think there's something bigger than just the individual circumstances," he said. "Obviously the individual circumstances are important, but I think it's also important to know that some politician put a tax of $5.85 on a pack of cigarettes, so they've driven cigarettes underground by making them so expensive."
Yes, cigarette taxes, that’s what we should be outraged about here. Not be big, fat dead black man. Or all the riots breaking out across the country in black communities.
Seriously, guy? And you want to be President of the United States. I mean, this argument wouldn't have worked during the days of the Boston Tea Party. The real Tea Party.
Again, none of this is to lay blame in any of these cases. That’s another discussion. It’s just to address a type of defense we’re hearing that avoids the issue at hand and obfuscates.
To put it another way, this is where I like to use the “What if it was your sister?” gambit. It’s one thing for the Peter Kings, Patrick Lynches, Maki Haberfields and Rand Pauls of the world to make the dead, black Eric Garner or dead, black Michael Brown the ones at fault and the police the victims, but how would they react if it was their sister shot while holding up their hands in surrender or crying out “I can’t breathe”? That doesn’t alter the facts of the cases, but it does make one wonder if their reactions would be different. And if their reactions would be different (as I suspect they would be), then their arguments are empty.
I can't imagine how difficult it is to be a police officer. It must often be a hellish job, under not just difficult but also life-threatening conditions. And I understand why it’s fair give them some leeway in their work. But that’s another matter entirely.
Who’d have thought, though, that even harder was being a person trying to defend the police as society begins to fray, and not having a clue how to start?
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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